Coin Relief – Issue Eleven

Here is the next edition of our regular blog series on ancient coins from the PAS database. In this edition, Dr. Andrew Brown looks at the coinage of father and son duo Macrinus and Diadumenian.

Macrinus and Diadumenian, AD 217-218

Macrinus (left, BM: R.12689) and Diadumenian (right, BM: 1956,0502.7) as depicted on coins from the collections of The British Museum.

When Julius Martialis dispatched a caught short Caracalla in April AD 217, the assassination brought to an end a period of political intrigue and plotting. Suggestions of conspiracy against Caracalla had already appeared in Rome and although letters were sent by the military commander, Flavius Maternianus,
to warn Caracalla they never reached him. At the centre of the coup appears to have been Marcus Opellius Macrinus, a Mauretanian of the equestrian class who by AD 217 had served under Caracalla as the praetorian prefect and was one of the party accompanying the emperor on the fateful day in April AD 217. Martialis had been killed by a spear from Caracalla’s bodyguard while fleeing the assassination, while Macrinus played at lamenting the emperor’s death. The problem was that Caracalla had no heir, the succession of the empire was
uncertain and so Rome stood once again on the brink of crisis.

However, on the 11th April AD 217, the legions in Syria declared Macrinus emperor, prompting a brief and not hugely noteworthy reign of less than two years, with Antioch as his base. Macrinus elevated his young son, Marcus Opellius Diadumenianus, to caesar – Diadumenian was just 8 years of age – Macrinus adopting the name Severus and Diadumenian the name Antoninus in order to create links with previous dynasties and so
establish some legitimacy. Descriptions of Macrinus paint him as a less than successful or admired ruler, although he was the first of non-senatorial rank to become emperor. He was “the son of most obscure parents, so that he was very appropriately likened to the ass that was led up to the palace by the spirit; in particular, one of his ears had been bored in accordance with the custom followed by most of the Moors. But his integrity threw even this drawback into the shade.” (Cassius Dio, LXXIX.11).

Early in his reign Macrinus had ordered Julia Domna to leave Antioch, but she had refused and starved herself to death. Of pressing importance was the military conflict Caracalla had placed the empire in with Parthia. Macrinus and his army met the Parthians in a huge and bloody battle at Nisibis (Mesopotamia) in the autumn of AD 217 that ultimately resulted in Macrinus acceding to pay a huge and humiliating peace settlement to Artabanus, apparently with bribes and gifts amounting to 200 million sesterces!1 He was consul in AD 218 and attempted to alleviate some of Caracalla’s policies, but perhaps unwisely tried to undo some of the military reforms of his predecessor. By May AD 218, Julia Maesa, sister of Julia Domna, contrived to gain support from the unhappy military for her grandson, Elagabalus, who was declared emperor by the legions at Emesa on the 16th May. Macrinus’ response was to elevate Diadumenian, now just 9 years old, to augustus at the end of April – a title never officially confirmed by the senate. On the 8th of June AD 218, forces loyal to Elagabalus attacked and defeated Macrinus outside Antioch. He fled. Diadumenian had been sent for his own safety to the Parthian court, but was captured and executed at Zeugma. Macrinus himself was caught in Cappadocia, executed, and his head sent as a trophy to Elagabalus!

Elagabalus marched into Antioch and was soon recognised as emperor. Macrinus and Diadumenian had importantly lost the support of the military and were soon declared public enemies by the senate, subject to damnatio memoriae. In describing this period in RIC (IV.2, p. 1), Mattingly, Sydenham, and Sutherland note that although “the reign of Macrinus contributed little to the glory of Imperial Rome, in contrast with the venomous tyranny of
Caracalla and the degrading buffoonery of Elagabalus, it must rank as an interlude of sane, if not brilliant, statesmanship”!

Macrinus, AD 217-218

Coinage of Macrinus is understandably limited in a British context given his short reign. The PAS has just 32 records (including 10 IARCW records) for Macrinus, 22 of which relate to
denarii, 9 for his bronze coinage, and one possible radiate although this is from the IARCW dataset and therefore impossible to confirm. This is a pattern that we might expect to some extent. Silver formed the core of Macrinus’ coinage, with limited quantities of bronze and very rarely gold, struck at the mint of Rome.

Denarius of Macrinus with the obverse legend: IMP C M OPEL SEV MACRINVS AVG. Record ID is WAW-69E393 (Copyright: Birmingham Museums Trust, Licence: CC-BY).

All of Macrinus’ coinage carries the same obverse legend, such as the example above, incorporating his adopted name of Severus: IMP C M OPEL SEV MACRINVS AVG (or slightly longer CAES on the bronze coinage). Two distinct bust varieties are represented, the first with cropped hair and beard, replaced later in September AD 217 with an older face and long beard. It is unclear why the early types show a younger bust, but it may have been that the only images of Macrinus available to die engravers in Rome at the start of his reign were outdated to be replaced later.

Examples of Macrinus’ coinage development. Clockwise from top left: denarius with TR P legend (BM: R.15520, Trustees of the British Museum); denarius with TR P COS legend (BM: 1946,1004.973, Trustees of the British Museum); denarius with TR P II COS legend (DOR-13C047, Somerset County Council); as with TR P II COS II legend (WILT-C95B51, Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum). All Licence CC-BY.

The development of Macrinus’ coinage is based largely on the reverse types, for which there are both dated and undated types, that follow Macrinus’ various imperial titles. A relatively typical range of types appear, including those that reference the fidelity of the military (FIDES MILITVM), Jupiter as the emperor’s protector, and various personifications (e.g. Annona, Felicitas, Fides, Salus, and Securitas). The development outlined in RIC IV.2 is as follows:

TR PApril to December AD 217
TR P COSApril to December AD 217
TR P II COSDecember AD 217
TR P II COS IIJanuary to June AD 218

Diadumenian, AD 217-218

Diadumenian’s coinage is even rarer than that of his father. There are just 10 identified Roman imperial coins recorded through the PAS, 9 of which are denarii and include 3 IARCW records. Silver forms the bulk of Diadumenian’s coin issues, less frequently bronze coinage (with 1 PAS example), and very rarely gold.

Denarius of Diadumenian, AD 217-218, showing the young prince bare headed, and between military standards on the reverse. Record ID is FAPJW-39A993 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY).

Much like Caracalla and Geta, Diadumenian became caesar at a young age and as such is depicted bare headed as a young boy. The obverse legends that appear on Diadumenian’s coinage are slightly more varied than that of his father and include examples both with his new name Antoninus and without:

Silver coinage:
M OPEL DIADVMENIANVS CAES
M OPEL ANT DIADVMENIAN CAES

Bronze coinage:
M OPEL DIADVMENIANVS CAES
M OPEL ANT DIADVMENIAN CAES
M OPEL ANTONINVS DIADVMENIANVS CAES

Reverses are essentially limited to two types with several variations. The most frequently seen, and represented by 9 of the PAS examples, is Diadumenian as the young prince – PRINC IVVENTVTIS – standing with and between a variety of military standards. The second is SPES PVBLICA – the ‘hope of the public’.

Left: As with PRINC IVVENTVTIS reverse, record ID LANCUM-38EE96 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY). Right: Denarius with SPES PVBLICA reverse, record ID ESS-FFFC33 (Copyright: the finder, Licence: CC-BY).